Studebaker: Ahead Of Its Time And The True Source Of Every Postwar Styling Trend

It is universally recognized that the only reason Studebaker went out of business was because the company was ahead of its time.  Not only did it sell small cars before small cars were fashionable, it holds a special place among automotive stylists.  It is well known that Raymond Loewy and other talented designers spent time there turning out classic designs one after another.  Less well known is that Studebaker’s cache of postwar designs has been the well to which automotive stylists have gone again and again as they have searched for fresh ideas.  So deep is that well that Studebaker has provided the basis for virtually every significant design theme we have seen over the last fifty years.  Let’s look at some examples.  Like this first shot.  You may have thought that the Batmobile featured in the Michael Keaton film was originally outlandish.  Nope.  Just like with the Muppets, the film’s artists began with a bullet-nose Studebaker.

We all know that the Cadillac Escalade struck gold when it took the ordinary Chevy Tahoe upmarket.  But did you ever notice how, when GM stylists were looking for inspiration for a suitably impressive front end of the vehicle, that they copied that of the 1961 Lark? The exposed seams all around the front panel were cutting edge design that was not appreciated in 1961 but which was perfectly accepted on a top-shelf luxury vehicle forty years later.  Also note the way the slight arc in the front fender crease of the Cadillac – a perfect hat-tip to the Studebaker, which also provided inspiration for the basic shape of the modern SUV.

Everyone knows and loves the famous Nissan Hardbody pickup.  Its blocky shape and the bold sectioned grille as a focal point of the blunt front end made Nissan’s small truck an instant classic.  It is, of course, easy to see where Nissan went for inspiration.  The Studebaker Transtar truck line of the late 1950s was so far advanced that it was not appreciated for the modern design that it was.  We can now see how wrong the critics were at the time when they accused Studebaker of merely slapping a cheap fiberglass fascia onto an old design in an effort to update its design on the cheap.  No, it can finally be stated that Studebaker’s stylists were predicting mainstream pickup styling thirty years before others actually got there.  The noticeable fender bulges on the Hardbody echo the original and are a brilliant take on the classic look Studebaker created in 1957.

When Hyundai began its quest to move from cheap also-ran to a legitimate choice for upscale buyers, the firm’s stylists knew where they needed to look for a muse.  The classic stern of the 1963 Cruiser was the only place to go.  Its timeless use of large round taillights and the full-width band of thick bright trim that incorporates back-up lights updated beautifully to the new millennium.  The prominent side crease and large rear window practically copy Brooks Stevens’ brilliant 1963 update of the Lark, as does the use of block letters for the nameplate.  The bold upper edge of the deck lid completes the package.  Although the buyers of 1963 were not ready for this look, just look where the Sonata has gone after this successful – dare we say – “Jet Thrust” launch.

Nissan has been going from success to success in recent years.  The current Maxima has been seen as a trendsetter in the industry.  Its bold front end has brought on a gaggle of imitators recently, including Honda and Toyota.  But those of us in the know immediately saw the classic lines of the 1958 Studebaker in this new Maxima.  The deep dip of the lower lip of the bumper is only the beginning.  The thick bands of chrome higher up on the grille and a variation on the “V” motif in the Nissan’s grille design complete the package.  Studebaker’s quad headlight treatment was criticized in 1958. What the public took for cheaply added fender pods were actually Studebaker’s way of bringing the headlight edges close to the wheel opening in the only way that the technology of 1958 would allow.  See how modern lighting design makes it possible for Nissan to finally achieve the look Studebaker’s design staff searched for sixty years ago.  Note also the little kick-up at the back of the greenhouse and Nissan’s svelte update of the Studebaker’s hardtop C pillar and tailfin.  It is hard to believe that over a half century separates the two designs.

The 1986 Ford Taurus is recognized as a watershed design, perhaps the boldest new design since Studebaker’s demise.  The Taurus’ stylists should get a lot less credit than they do because it is clear for all to see that they practically copied Raymond Loewy’s Avanti line for line.  The grille-less facia flanked by two bold rectangular headlights with outboard vertical parking lights was almost a direct copy.  The Taurus also pays homage to the Avanti’s slim chrome bumper with the subtle chrome trim across the front.  This lonely bit of original design was doubtless due to bumper regulations that were not in existence when the original design hit showrooms.  The only place the Taurus designers muffed things was in their eagerness to slather plastic cladding all over the sides of their new Ford.  But perhaps this was necessary to avoid litigation as the Avanti II was still in limited production.

Subaru has been on a roll in recent years.  When it was time for a new design language to cement its newfound status as one of America’s favorite cars, Subaru knew that there was but a single source for inspiration.  America of 1955 did not appreciate the subtle front end treatment which Studebaker affixed to its line of cars in an effort to tone down some of Raymond Loewy’s earlier excess.   Modern Subaru buyers, however, understand the look completely and have snapped the cars up with great enthusiasm.  Note Subaru’s update on the prominent lights mounted low in the bumper of the Studebaker.  A premier road car of 1955 needed good driving lights and one today needs them no less.  It is nice to see another Indiana-built vehicle with this attractive look.  There are rumors of limited edition Commander and President trim levels for the Subarus coming in 2019.  That Subaru follows Studebaker’s legacy is literally written on the front of the latest models.

The 1999 Impala was a sleek and attractive car.  It is little wonder that Studebaker was the source of its good looks.  The most obvious part of the copy is the heavy crease above the rear wheel that resolves at the rear of the vehicle.  America was not ready for Brooks Stevens’ vision in 1962, but that look fits today to a T.  But we should also note the thick pillars and high beltline of the Impala.  Stylish as those features may be in 2018, Studebaker was offering that look to a public that simply did not understand the concept.  I suspect that the Mona Lisa took a few generations to gain some traction with art lovers as well.  The large wheels and short overhangs of the Studebaker were carried over to the modern Impala almost perfectly intact.  It is true, there really is nothing new under the sun.  But even today Chevrolet’s stylists were not bold enough to adopt the Studebaker’s flashy dip in the side molding.  I suspect that we will see this design feature brought into the next generation Impala.

If the 1962 Lark served as the beginning of the inspiration for the Impala, the 1964 model finished off the rear of the newest version of the car.  The unmistakably fleet shape of the 1964 Cruiser is evident in the shape of the Impala’s tail section.  The horizontally oriented taillights tied together with bright trim which contained a nameplate in block letters could have come from no other source.  And again, that unique ridge over the rear wheel opening is there as well.  Although Studebaker could have lowered the rear of its sedan as Chevrolet did with the Impala, Studebaker’s designers knew that America was not ready for such a bold concept.  Note that without the convenient gas cap in the center section Chevrolet’s stylists needed to move the license plate up from the bumper to cover the bare spot.  Such are the compromises that must be made when design perfection runs into today’s tight styling budgets.

Even the most avant garde styles have proven to be virtual carbon copies of Studebakers.  Take the Nissan Juke.  Although it has proved to be controversial, it is positively conservative next to the 1959 Studebaker Lark from which it clearly stole its look.  The stubby shape with extremely short overhangs and the little kickup over the rear wheel are definite updates of the older design.  But look at the roof pillars – the three backswept pillars and the wraparound rear glass – make it clear that Nissan might as well be spelling its name with the Studebaker-sourced lazy S.  It would not be surprising to learn that the Nissan even uses some of the Lark’s inner stampings in the Juke’s body.

Mercedes Benz is rightly seen today as the world’s premier motorcar.  Most people do not realize that Mercedes learned most of what it knows about automobile building from the years when it shared U.S. showrooms with Studebaker.  It is indisputable that Mercedes was never better than in the years immediately after its Studebaker affiliation–an affiliation that went so much better than that later one with Chrysler.  Just think how much more successful StudebakerDaimler would have been.  It is clear that Mercedes has not forgotten its roots in the new E Class Cabriolet.  The inspiration of the prominent three-pointed ornament in the middle of the nose could hardly be more clear.  The center bullet section of the 1951 original was no doubt eliminated to avoid potential legal issues with Cooper Industries, the corporate successor to Studebaker.  Mercedes did, however insist on carrying over the two bright lines which flow out from the center ornament.  Of course they do not spell out “Studebaker” and “Champion” on the chrome bars, but then sometimes even Mercedes buyers have to settle for less.

Really, it is hard to imagine a single world automotive styling trend that did not show up first on a Studebaker.  The trapezoidal grille that became almost universal in the 1990s – yep, you guessed it.  From Toyota to Mercury and almost everything in between, the signature look of the 1964 Studebaker Hawk is on display.  And never more clearly than on the final version of the Ford Crown Victoria, which even aped Studebaker for the general look of its wheels.  It is unfortunate that none of the modern-day designers has yet done justice to the graceful design of the Hawk, but there is time.  As long as new cars are styled and manufactured you can be sure that in some way Studebaker will be the inspiration for the design.  It is just a shame that Studebaker was so far ahead of its time that it could not be around to bring us these new designs today.  Because we all know that everything is better when it comes from Indiana.